Jim Croce, Jesus and the ‘freedom to question’
Probably within every creative genius is a tortured soul.
Such was the case with the late great Jim Croce, whose music beautifully captures the human spirit. Found within his ballads are personal struggles – the tension to pursue his God-given gift amid numerous failures, pressure from his parents to give up music and “get a job,” and the temptations inherent to a musician’s life on the road, playing night after night in smoky clubs.
Croce died when I was 10 years old, and his name reminds me of summer days when I attached a black transistor radio to my bike with rubber bands so I could ride up and down our country road listening to songs like Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.
I just finished I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story by Croce’s widow Ingrid and her second husband Jimmy Rock. I got it for Christmas and devoured it in two days. The book is as much Ingrid Croce’s memoir as it is a revealing biography of Jim Croce, and it works because of her courage to tell the whole, tension-filled story of his conflicted life.
As a lover of music and a storyteller, I am fascinated by the characters like Leroy Brown and Big Jim Walker, whom Croce immortalized in song.
And as a theologian, I am deeply interested in Croce’s religious conflicts, to the extent I can try to grasp them.
Croce grew up in a strongly Roman Catholic, Italian-American family, but never seemed to fit comfortably there. His inner struggle with the question of God reached its peak in his decision to marry Ingrid, who is Jewish. The religious pressure Croce received came from his side of the family, which was not a safe place for his doubts. Though largely a private man, he was able to talk to Ingrid’s father about his spiritual concerns shortly before their marriage.
Croce told him that as a Catholic he was not supposed to doubt but that he still had “a lot of questions about spirituality. God seems speculative to me. But I want to believe in something, and I want the freedom to question.”
Ingrid Croce described her father, then facing a terminal prognosis with pancreatic cancer, as a skeptic. But he told his future son-in-law: “I encourage you to keep up your search, Jim, and to let your conscience be your guide.”
Ultimately, Croce decided to convert to Judaism. His parents’ initial response to this news was predictable: They stopped talking to him.
The Church’s problem is that it often stops talking to those who have questions. This is not a Roman Catholic dilemma, but rather a problem for all of us who ever surrender to that within organized religion which lifts dogma over love. I can only speak from the Christian context, but the prevalence of fundamentalism in other religions as well makes me believe it is not uniquely Christian.
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples on a mountain. They respond in two ways: They worship him. And some doubt. Jesus makes no distinctions between those who doubt and those who do not when he reminds them he will be with them until the end of the age (Matthew 28: 16-20). What Croce was seeking should be printed in bold letters and placed over every church door: “You can believe in something here. And you can have the freedom to question.”
Whenever religious people encourage questions and welcome doubters, religion is serving an important purpose in the world.
But somewhere along the way, it seems that our understanding of what it means to be a follower got turned around. If doubters aren’t welcome, not even Jesus’ disciples can get a seat.